India at 40: no regional bully

ARE India's foreign and domestic policies in shambles as the nation approaches the 40th anniversary of its independence next month? In the 1980s, India's confrontation with Pakistan over Kashmir and nuclear arms issues continues. The border dispute with China has been revived. Problems with Bangladesh over India's construction of the Farrakha Barrage Dam and over the status of ``illegal'' Bengali Muslim immigrants in India's Assam continue. There has been a new confrontation with Sri Lanka over Indian aid to Tamil rebels, and Nepal resists what it considers Indian economic and political interference in its affairs.

India's domestic problems also appear more acute. The Khalistan separatist movement among the Punjab's Sikhs has intensified. The frequency and number of deaths from Hindu-Muslim riots have increased considerably; so have the violence and destruction from riots between caste Hindus and Harijans. The ruling Congress Party has lost 10 of India's 25 states to opposition parties since Rajiv Gandhi took over as prime minister. There is concern that a new national election could lead to the political collapse of the Congress Party (I) and perhaps of the nation as well.

Recently, a Pakistani scholar told me that India was unique in the number of problems it faced with its neighbors abroad and with its minorities at home. He claimed it assumed a bullying role with its neighbors unlike that of any other major power.

Claiming that India is the regional bully is unfair. While its problems with Pakistan tend to be emotional and potentially violent, this is not true about India's relations with its other neighbors. India, which has fought three wars with Pakistan, feels justified in opposing the United States arms buildup there. In the 1950s, when India had no military ambitions, the US provided Pakistan with sophisticated weapons; India was compelled to buy offsetting arms at considerable cost from Britain and France. The arms were provided to Pakistan with the assurance they would be used only against communist aggression. In fact, they were subsequently used only against India, in the 1965 and '71 wars.

INDIA does not object to the sale of US arms to Pakistan in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; it does object to their nature and quality. The projected supply of AWACS planes to Pakistan would allow every move of the Indian Air Force to be anticipated. Despite India's 3-to-1 advantage in total combat aircraft, the supply of US F-16s and AWACS craft to Pakistan would undermine India's air defenses.

Claims of India's military ground superiority are greatly exaggerated, and have only a slight edge over Pakistan's. In the air, India has argued, it is the quality and effectiveness of front-line combat aircraft that matters most. Pakistan has usually held a qualitative edge in combat aircraft. Only India's Navy is superior.

There are no current US guarantees that the F-16s, AWACS, and TOW missiles supplied to Pakistan will not be used against India. Yet Pakistani leaders have repeatedly claimed that India still constitutes the main threat, and not the Soviets in Afghanistan. Pakistan's military deployments today conform to this belief.

The claim that India has problems with all of its neighbors is similarly misleading. The border dispute between India and China arose from a series of misunderstandings on both sides. China holds the disputed Aksai Chin plateau that links Tibet with Sinkiang, which it considers of strategic value. India holds the territory it considers of strategic value, which is south of the 1914 British McMahon line. Both nations hold what they want. In response to India's incorporation of the area south of the McMahon line into a new state, China chose to revive the dispute by building up its troops in the region. The situation has recently been diffused, however; Sino-Indian relations remain quite cordial.

Problems with Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Nepal are the kinds of irritations that occur among many neighboring states. The Farrakha Barrage Dam issue has been resolved, and the question of ``illegal'' aliens in Assam is similar to the US-Mexico problem. India's recent airdrop of relief supplies to Tamil civilians on Sri Lanka's Jaffna Peninsula was an unfortunate incident, perhaps violating Sri Lanka's territorial sovereignty. But the differences have been reconciled. Still, Pakistan's attempts to forge military ties with Sri Lanka could well undermine good Indo-Sri Lankan relations in the future.

INDIA has no territorial designs on any neighboring state. It is Pakistan and China that are not satisfied with the territorial status quo. Pakistan still claims Kashmir, while China seeks to reabsorb Taiwan, Hong Kong, and other parts of the old Manchu Empire. India's absorption of tiny Sikkim in 1974 is more justifiable than the Chinese absorption of Tibet in 1950. And India does not seek to reabsorb Pakistan and Bangladesh.

To a degree, India's internal problems are the inevitable result of the democratic process getting ``out of hand.'' In a country of such immense religious, linguistic, caste, and class diversity, there are an increasing number of groups that are making claims to its limited economic goods and services. Regional and communal group expectations are far outpacing development, despite an average Indian economic growth rate of almost 6 percent over the last 10 years. Increasingly, ambitious minority groups see democratic channels as insufficient to rectify what they consider legitimate grievances. The Sikhs in the past have experienced unbridled prosperity in the economy and in the military, which are now being curbed to bring about more equitable redistribution for other groups and regions. The large Muslim minority, left leaderless and dormant after the creation of Pakistan as a homeland for Indian Muslims in 1947, has now become vigorously active in the mainstream of Indian politics and society, creating a backlash of Hindu resentment in some areas. A similar trend exists in relations between Harijans, who are given extensive special benefits, and caste Hindus, who feel deprived, causing violence between the two.

At the same time, the ruling Congress government of Rajiv Gandhi is under increasing pressure from the Hindu majority, which contends that religious minorities are being pampered at Hindu expense. At issue are not just communal but broader national concerns - conceding greater political and economic autonomy to the states, improving their political relations with the central government, and redistributing goods between haves and have-nots, while maintaining the incentives for work and production.

India is often touted as the world's largest democracy, but few people outside India understand the monumental difficulties under which it functions. Still, India has managed to avoid conflict for 16 years. It has maintained fairly good relations with all its neighbors, including Pakistan. It has avoided entanglements in superpower rivalries. It has solved its food problem. It has begun to curb its population growth through voluntary methods. It has maintained a healthy economic growth rate through the greater infusion of private capitalism.

On Aug. 15, India will have survived 40 years under the enduring banners of democracy, secularism, a mixed capitalist-socialist economy, and nonalignment. Despite all the dire predictions of the past, India may be expected to survive as a comparatively stable political entity in the decades ahead.

Raju G.C. Thomas is professor of political science at Marquette University. He is the author of ``The Defence of India'' (Macmillan, 1978) and ``Indian Security Policy'' (Princeton, 1986.)

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